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On Abortion

Too often we hear about this controversy over Abortion, and whether or not life begins at conception or at birth. The problem with this is that life does not begin either at conception or at birth. Life began millions of years ago and has continually reproduced itself ever since. Of course, we’re asking something more specific than that, we’re talking about Human Life. But Human Life is essentially anything that is living and has human DNA in it. This would include everything from sperm to cancer cells. Clearly we don’t defend the rights of individual cells. What we’re looking for is when a collection of cells, of human life, becomes a unique person.

There are two ways to look at this. A unique person could hypothetically exist the moment a completely unique DNA sequence comes into existence that represents all that this entity could be. This view would favor conception as the starting point. But consider that genetically identical twins are quite clearly not one single individual but two separate, if similar individual persons, and clearly the twinning process can occur several days after conception.

The other way to look at this is to ask when a person is truly a separate, unique entity. What makes a person alive? Must it be able to do things independently to be alive? Well, look at first, the just born child, who is for the first months and even years of its existence, almost totally helpless. Were it left without parents or guardians, it would almost certainly die of exposure. Also look at the sleeping or comatose patient. Is an unconscious person, one who is unable to eat, or possibly even breathe without help, any less of a person?

Perhaps it makes the most sense to look at the medical difference between living and dead. Once, we looked at whether someone’s heart was beating to decide if it was alive. More recently, we look at brain activity, and assume that those without this must be long gone. Thus we seek evidence of sentience and the potential to develop sapience, as the criteria for personhood.

So, when does the unborn develop brain activity? When can that collection of cells no longer transform into two or more individuals? It has been suggested by research in neuroscience that the human brain does not feel until it has developed connections between the cortex and the thalamus. Nearly all sensory input must go through the thalamus before it can processed. What this means then, is that the unborn entity cannot feel, cannot perceive, until the thalamus connections are formed. After that point it will feel pain, and as such it would be inhumane to harm it. Prior to that point however, the entity has had no thoughts, as it has had nothing, no perceptions to think about.

So when is this point? Thalamocortical connections are formed at 26 weeks, and electroencephalography suggests that functional pain perception exists at 30 weeks. Interestingly, studies have shown that the fetus can perceive music in the womb as early as 20 weeks, at which point the auditory system is fully functional.

Sources: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/1432495.stm

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/02/baby-brain-activity-sleep/

An interesting concept is that of viability, that is the state in which the unborn life form is able to be removed from the womb and survive, albeit with assistance, outside of it. Babies who go to full term are born at 37 to 40 weeks. The American Association of Pediatrics opinion is that babies born at less than 23 weeks are not considered "viable". As of this writing the earliest any baby has been taken out of the womb and survived is 22 weeks, a girl named Amillia Taylor.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/medicine/story/0,,2017772,00.html

The fact of the matter is that all human children are born premature, at least compared to other animals in nature. If you have ever seen a deer or a calf born, or a chick coming out of its egg, all these animals are born just about able to walk from the moment they are released into the world. Humans however, due to their especially large cranial capacity, must be born premature and utterly helpless to be born at all.

In all this uncertainty then, perhaps we can try a compromise. If we know not when exactly an unborn human can perceive pain, but we know that it is definitely not right after conception, and definitely is before birth, then let us split the difference and put the legal limit for allowing abortion at 20 weeks, around halfway through most pregnancies, which coincides with the earliest known perceptual functionality of the fetus in the womb, that of auditory perception.

Furthermore, an exception should always be made to allow abortions when the life of the mother is in danger, because fundamentally, such a circumstance requires choosing which life to save. In such circumstances, the mother has more developed cognitive faculties, and is also more likely to survive, so it makes sense to save her.

In practice this will have little effect on the majority of abortions, which mostly occur in the first trimester. Most abortions in the second trimester also occur before the 20th week, with only 1.4% of abortions occurring after. Very few abortions take place in the third trimester, as many doctors refuse to do them, and those that do are most often due to medical reasons that the exception would allow for. So in practice, the vast majority of abortions would still occur. It is however, in my humble opinion, a more principled stand to take than the current situation where there are no laws at all with regards to abortion (at least in Canada).

Addendum

Of course, this is just one of several possible theories of personhood. The traditional pro-life theory is that personhood begins at conception, while the traditional pro-choice theory is that personhood begins at birth. There are also the theories described earlier, which we may call, the naïve continuum, and the science. If we consider these as probabilities, then it looks something like this:

 Conception1st-2nd TrimesterMidpoint2nd-3rd TrimesterBirth
Pro-Life11111
Pro-Choice00001
Naïve Continuum00.3330.50.6671
Science00.250.511
Average0.250.3960.50.6671

As you can see, where you put the cut-off mark for abortion depends strongly on how you weigh each possible distribution, and to what probability you find acceptable the potential killing of a person.

Of course, all this assumes the deontological ethical perspective that killing is always wrong no matter what. From a consequentialist ethical perspective we can’t make this assumption. Rather, the weight of the act of abortion is affected by the sign of the value of the life that is being aborted. So from a consequentialist, and in particular, a Utilitarian perspective, we have to do a much more thorough analysis than this.

To begin, we must consider the net value of the life we are considering aborting, not only in the sense of the net happiness or suffering of that particular person, but also the net happiness or suffering that this person’s existence will cause to others. A classical Utilitarian analysis must therefore consider many factors, such as the likelihood that an unwanted child will live a worse life than average (though it may well still be worth living), and also the effects on the parents’ lives and the costs to society at large, as well as the impact on the environment as a whole. Not only that, but a truly far reaching analysis must even include the lives of the potential future children and descendants of the person whose life we are considering aborting.

This last consideration has the potential to trump everything else. The fact of the matter is that every life that is prematurely ended before childbearing age is a loss of not just one life, but of countless possible descendants who could have existed because of this person. To that extent, a single life can be considered far more valuable than just the happiness that it experiences.

Of course, this assumes that those lives are possible. If humanity remains trapped on this planet forever, than eventually the number of humans may well exceed its carrying capacity, and so an extra life may come at a very high cost in suffering. However, it is at least equally possible that humanity will master space and expand to other star systems with planets that could sustain some indefinite number of human beings. If this is the case, then a single life could be very valuable indeed.

Given uncertainty, we cannot know for certain that a life will or will not be worth living. We can make a guess that an unwanted child being considered for abortion may well live a worse life than a wanted child, but we cannot assume this of the many possible descendants of that person, whose lives probably matter even more in the long run. Similarly, we cannot assume that humanity will or will not reach carrying capacity and a limited resources scenario, though we can perhaps be optimistic given past history.

To some extent, uncertainty that is both positive and negative, will cancel each other out, leaving us with a much more general task. The question of abortion ultimately then becomes a question of suicide. Is life in general, worth living? If you believe that your own life is worth living then it is more likely than not that even an unwanted child’s life is probably worth living as well. On the other hand, if you believe that your own life is not worth living, you are actually implicitly judging the lives of others to be not worth living either. Thus, to be morally consistent, someone who accepts elective abortion as rational must also consider suicide and the end of the human species to be rational in at least some cases.

Conversely, someone who considers abortion to be morally abhorrent, must accept the conclusion that they should spend as much of their waking hours procreating as possible, in order to maximize the number of morally worthy lives in the universe.

But wait, we can be uncertain about this as well! In truth, we are uncertain whether or not life is worth living, whether or not there will be more happiness or suffering, because we cannot predict our future. Perhaps tomorrow aliens will appear who either create a utopia of unimaginable bliss for humanity, or enslave and torture us for the rest of our days. We cannot know that this won’t happen.

So at the end of the day, we don’t know whether or not it is morally good or evil to live. We can only choose to be either optimistic, or pessimistic. If we are optimistic, we choose to maximize life consistently, for ourselves and everyone else. If we are pessimistic, we should end all life, including our own.

And if we are truly uncertain, what should we do? Maybe flip a coin? But I don’t think you are truly uncertain. You are alive. You have experienced life so far and found that there is enough happiness in it to offset the suffering. You believe that life is worth living. This is because life seeks happiness and avoids suffering, and so life is biased towards being worth living. With an equal amount of good and bad luck, you can expect to have more happiness than suffering, and thus a life worth living. And so, if you believe that life is worth living for yourself, you should believe it to be the case for all others, unless there is some obvious evidence to the contrary.

Therefore, except in certain special circumstances, abortion is (probably) wrong.

Addendum II

Perhaps that conclusion requires some clarification.

First, I should clarify that I’m not suggesting that people who are contemplating suicide are actually thinking that life in general is not worth living. Most people who are actually considering suicide do tend to think that their lives are especially bad. Philosophers however are also famous for tackling the "problem of suicide" as a general question, and the way I see it, people who are considering suicide are usually near sighted in their introspection, considering mainly the recent pain they've experienced, and haven't really considered that overall, their lives should regress to the average. Thus, if you look at the question lucidly, and with the rational awareness that our futures are very uncertain but most likely to be average, then what a suicidal person doesn't realize is that by judging their own lives unworthy, they are at least suggesting that lives in general are not worth living, even if that isn't their intention. On the other hand, there are a few philosophers like David Benetar, who have argued that it is actually better not to exist, period.

There are also implications for birth control, which might make it look immoral as well. The main difference would be that with birth control, the probabilities are different. The probability that a particular egg or sperm will lead to a human being is very, very low. On the other hand, the probability that a zygote, and embryo, or a fetus will lead to a human being if nothing is done to it, is very, very high.

No one thinks that sperm or eggs constitute a person, so the probability that you're killing someone is zero. However, the potential people including descendants argument is more of a challenge, and I'm not sure how to square it.

Perhaps the best counter would be an argument from pragmatism, that it's not reasonable to expect people to constantly try to maximize their reproduction, and that this goes beyond moral duty. Also, it's arguable that lives that are worth living are much more likely when both parents are able and willing to care for them, and so we should try to only have children that we can and want to properly care for, though I realize this is kind of an argument for abortion as well.

I guess we have to look at what the real difference between birth control and abortion is. That seems to be that the fetus is not just a "potential" person, as eggs and sperm can be, but that a fetus is actually a person in the full sense. Thus, birth control is morally iffy in a weak sense that you're not maximizing reproduction of happy people, but abortion is morally wrong in the stronger sense that you are actually killing an existing person, and eliminating all their potential descendants. At some point we have to draw a line between what's morally not ideal, but still permissible, and what's actually morally impermissible.

You can think of it like that birth control thus exists in a grey area, while abortion exists in a much darker grey area. A "perfectly good" life of maximizing everyone's happiness would be white, while a "perfectly evil" life of maximizing everyone's suffering would be black. Most practical actions actually exist somewhere in the middle grey areas.

Also, another thing to consider in trying to figure out just how much worse an unwanted child's life is, would be to compare suicide attempt rates between adoptees and the general population. Apparently, adoptees are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide (http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/810625).

The exact numbers are:

47/692 = 6.79% of adoptees

9/540 = 1.67% of non-adoptees

This is actually partly why I consider suicide to imply that life in general might not be worth living. Imagine a country where the majority of people committed suicide. You would think there was something wrong with the country, that so many people would take their own lives. Suicide thus functions as an imperfect indicator of to what extent other people think that life is not worth living.

Anyways, the fact that four times as many adoptees attempt suicide does count as evidence that their lives are worse off. But what does it mean to be four times worse off? Keep in mind that the vast majority of adoptees (93.21%) did not attempt suicide. Thus, the vast majority it can be argued thought that their lives were still worth living. Admittedly, human beings are biased to want to live, but even so... compare this with paraplegics (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1787986) who are five times more likely to commit suicide than the general population:

50/9135 = 0.547% suicides Given that 1 in 20 suicide attempts are successful, we can calculate suicide attempts as: 1000/9135 = 10.9%

Note that this is higher than the percentage of adoptees who attempt suicide. Do you think a paraplegic's life is still worth living?

Let’s look at the suicide rates for homeless people:

11.6/100,000 = 0.0116% general Canadian suicide rate 232/100,000 = 0.232% estimated general Canadian suicide attempt rate

460/100,000 = 0.46% homeless Canadian suicide rate (http://www.homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/yhjph5gr.pdf) 9200/100,000 = 9.2% estimated homeless Canadian suicide attempt rate

So, homeless Canadians are about 40 times more likely to commit suicide than the average Canadian. Note that this is still less than 10% of homeless people, so 90% appear to think that their life is still worth living.

You should also keep in mind that even in countries where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day, the average happiness rating is still close to 5/10 (http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf).

And finally, something to consider, so far I've made the assumption that we're using a Total Utilitarian approach, which assumes we should maximize the total happiness in the universe. There's also an alternative view called Average Utilitarianism that would try to maximize the average happiness in the universe. Under Average Utilitarianism, abortion is actually much more moral because the evidence suggests that unwanted children have below average happiness. However, I don't subscribe to Average Utilitarianism, because it basically suggests that we could maximize average happiness by killing people whose happiness is below average. If we kept killing people until only the happiest person is left, we would have maximized average happiness. This to me is a reductio ad absurdum for Average Utilitarianism. Also, I think more actual happiness in the universe is better than less, so Total Utilitarianism makes more sense to me than Average Utilitarianism. Though, Total Utilitarianism does have the "Repugnant Conclusion" that we should maximize the number of lives that are barely worth living.

At the end of the day, it remains the case that abortion prevents the life of not just one person, but also all their potential descendants. While it may be the case that an unwanted child will live a considerably worse life than average, that life is probably still going to be worth living, and the lives of their descendants are also likely to be worth living. However, the same logic can be applied to argue that we shouldn’t use birth control and that we should be attempting to procreate as much as possible. To try and enforce laws that force people to procreate would likely be counterproductive and unmanageable. Therefore, while it is easy to show that abortion is morally wrong, it is not so easy to prove that the law should prohibit it.

In general, we apply the law sparingly, and only towards things that we as a society agree to condemn and punish. Given the uncertainty about what is right or wrong, the law as written consists of a mixture of constitutional precedence and democratic agreement. Thus, only those things that are consistent with the constitution, and can be passed by a democratic legislature, become law.

Abortion may well be wrong in most cases. But so could not giving as much of your money to the poor as reasonably possible, and no one thinks the law should punish that.

Thus, it becomes a matter of asking what principles by which the laws are based need to be upheld. And the one that seems to remain concerning is that persons have a right to life. So, at the end of the day, it comes down once again to whether or not we consider the fetus a person. Not a potential person, because the law does not protect those, but a fully existent person.

Given uncertainty, it is possible but very unlikely that a zygote right after conception is a person. By the beginning of the second trimester, it is more likely that the embryo is a person, though still less likely than likely. By the midpoint of pregnancy, the chance is about 50/50. And by the beginning of the third trimester, it is more likely than not that the fetus is a person.

Thus, the point at which the law should be applied depends on how risk averse we are, because at any point along this continuum, we do risk the non-zero probability that abortion is killing a person. It seems at the very least, that the law should be applied by the third trimester, but it is less certain whether or not the law should be applied earlier than that.

Many countries, such as France and Germany, place the legal limit around the end of the first trimester/12 weeks/beginning of the second trimester. The United States allows abortion restrictions to be enacted by states starting in the third trimester. Canada remains an outlier in that we have no laws regarding abortion.

Ultimately, the law is something that we must agree upon as a democratic and constitutional society. Morality has something to say about what laws are right and wrong, but given moral uncertainty, the law is best expressed as what the majority of us can agree is right or wrong. Alas, abortion is such a controversial subject that agreement seems far from possible. Even so, we should try, for the sake of future generations whose lives may well depend on it.

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Page last modified on January 12, 2015, at 12:33 PM